Pebble ripples



The most fought over tundra in Alaska/Erin McKittrick, Wikimedia Commons


A group of commercial fishermen from Bristol Bay have gone to court to challenge a decision by the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA) to spend about a quarter million dollars on efforts to block development of the proposed Pebble Mine.

The six plaintiffs from three Iliamna Lake villages and Anchorage contend the BBRSDA, a quasi-state entity, is misusing state tax revenue. The organization was established to market Bristol Bay salmon, not lobby against mining, argues the suit filed in Anchorage Superior Court on Monday.

Pebble is a massive copper, gold and molybdenum deposit about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage and about 15 miles north of  Iliamna, the largest lake in Alaska, the seventh largest in the country and a major part of the salmon-rich Bristol Bay watershed.

The Pebble Partnership has jumped in to financially back the lawsuit.

“There were several fishermen that we’ve gotten to know over the years who were quite angered by the fact that the taxes they pay on their fish landings is not being use to market and promote the fish. Instead, this money is being used to fund anti-Pebble activities,” Pebble Partnership Vice President of Public Affairs Mike Heatwole said in prepared statement.

None of the fishermen are wealthy, and Heatwole said Pebbles only intent in backing them was to see that the marking money they pay BBRSDA gets spent on marketing.

The possibility of a mine in the remote Iliamna watershed has turned a remote patch of tundra home to a fading caribou herd into the most fought over piece of ground in the 49th state.

Debate has divided local residents and split Alaskans for decades. Where some see economic opportunity in a rural and impoverished part of the state, others see environmental devastation.

Fears have been raised that pollution escaping a mine could destroy the Bristol Bay red salmon fishery 50 miles downstream. The Bay is home to the largest red (sockeye) salmon fishery in the world.

On average, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, as many as half the salmon returning to the Bay are headed for the Kvichak River draining Iliamna Lake, and over the last 20 years the Iliamna watershed has accounted for about a third of the Bay harvest. 

Critics of the mine contend the fish are so valuable that a technological gamble on building a truly clean mine isn’t worth the risk even if the Pebble deposit has been valued at more than $500 billion.

Proponents of the mine say a country that put a man on the moon 50 years ago this July and is now working to establish a human colony on that rock with an eye to sending humans to Mars ought to be able to figure out how to develop a major copper deposit with no more damage to the environment than the expansion of the Seattle suburbs.

A dirty legacy

But mines everywhere swim upstream against a history of shoddy, environmentally damaging operations.

Even a decision by the environmentally conscious Norwegians to allow a copper mine in that country’s Arctic has brought a firestorm of accusations that it will pollute reindeer pastures and nearby fiords, add to global warming and create all kinds of other problems.

“This is one of the most environmentally damaging industrial projects in Norwegian history,” Silje Ask Lundberg, leader of Friends of the Earth Norway, told the Independent in February.

As in Alaska, trust in the mining company and the Norwegian government to get the project done right appears low even though Norway has been a global leader on many environmental fronts. It is now trying to turn the tide on climate change by going electric. It plans to ban the sale of fossil-fuel powered cars by 2025. 

“Due to global warming, there is an ever more urgent necessity for people to electrify the world, and to do that you need copper. That’s a fact,”  Norway’s Nussir Asa mining company CEO Vidar Rune Late told Al Jazeera.

The mining debate in Norway has been somewhat more sophisticated than in Alaska, a state divided between those anxious to develop anything and everything, and those who would like to preserve the country’s last great undeveloped piece of real estate as wilderness.

Pebble has become a hot button issue for both sides. That almost everyone in Alaska already has a position on Pebble appears to be part of what drove the lawsuit challenging the BBRSDA decision to give the United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB) $225,000 to “for various activities, including, “educating the public” on how to lobby state and federal officials, flying people to public hearings, working social media and otherwise organizing grassroots opposition to Pebble.

The thrust of the suit is that there are better things for BBRSDA to do with its marketing money than to help add more fuel to the already raging Pebble fire.

Contracts the marketing association has signed with the UTBB and SalmonState “are unrelated to and beyond the scope and purpose for which BBRSDA was created: to promote and market seafood products harvested in the Bristol Bay region,” the suit says.

Environmental powers

SalmonState is a Juneau-based, non-governmental organization with a staff of 13 dedicated to protecting salmon habitat.  As part of its “Save Bristol Bay” campaign, it proclaims  “that Pebble is the wrong mine in the wrong place. It’s time for the mine’s proponents to listen to Alaskans: pack up and go home.”

The UTBB is of a like mind. In 2010, it led a group of sport and commercial fishermen that petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) to block the mine under the auspices of Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act.

The EPA spent years studying the mine. In 2012, hearings were held around Alaska and 1,500 miles to the south in Seattle to make it easier for Bristol Bay fishermen to testify.

Fewer than half the people who fish the Bay live in the Bristol Bay region, and less than a third of the money earned by fishermen working the Bay stays in the area.

Outside fishermen testifying in Seattle had absolutely nothing to gain from anything – let alone a mine – being developed in the Bay and potentially something to lose.

Technology is not foolproof. Even the U.S. space program suffered accidents. The EPA decided that was a Pebble possibility, too.

In 2014 the agency under President Barack Obama imposed restrictions on mine development that made any mining impossible, a national first under the Clean Water Act.

“The agency’s proposal is measured, solidly grounded in science, and directly responsive to the overwhelming local opposition to the project,” said a statement from the National Resource Defense Council, an environmental leader in the fight against the mine.

Round two

The Pebble Limited Partnership promptly sued and all kinds of hell broke loose. Pebble charged government officials colluded with environmentalists to use the Clean Water Act to sidestep normal permit review procedures and kill the mine even before it was given a chance to submit a plan for development. 

Phil North, the EPA official at the heart of the dispute, promptly retired and disappeared.

“While he was living out his retirement dreams abroad, something odd was happening back home,” the New Yorker reported in 2016. “He was becoming perhaps the most infamous retired Alaskan bureaucrat anywhere—a rogue scientist on the lam, the subject of lawsuits, subpoenas, and congressional inquiries and hearings.”

Eventually, the EPA under President Donald Trump settled the lawsuit and allowed the permitting process to begin again. A draft environmental statement has since been completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees these sorts of projects, and another round of public hearings have begun.

At hearings in Kokhanok and Newhalen earlier this week, public radio station KDLG reported their was some support voiced for the mine.

“What do we have here?” asked the spouse of one of the plaintiffs involved in the BBRSDA lawsuit. “The village council that only has five, six jobs. The school that only has maybe two or three aides. And the school that has maybe two. That’s not very much economy here. We need something for our kids. But we also need to make sure it’s safe.”

The safety debate has been ongoing for decades.

The possibility of a mine at Pebble began first began attracting attention in the late 1980s as mineral exploration detailed the size and potential value of the mineral deposit. Controversy quickly followed.

Mining companies came and went, beaten back by protesters only to turn the potential golden goose over to new investors, and there is little doubt as to the potential.

Northern Dynasty, the company now holding the goose, estimates Pebble  contains a minimum of 57 billion pounds of copper, 71 million ounces of gold, 3.4 billion pounds of molybdenum and 345 million ounces of silver.

There is a lot of gold in those low-lying hills just north of Iliamna, but no perfectly safe way to get it out because safety is never an absolute; it is a probability.

A court will get to decide whether the state-funded BBRSDA should be allowed to advise people on how to weigh that probability. Whether the organization should be involved at all is also something of a question under state law.

“The Association shall not advocate any position on state resource allocation issues, lobby the state or agencies of the state,” BBRSDA audits have noted for years.

Officially the state under Gov. Mike Dunleavy has taken the position the permitting process should be allowed to determine the mine’s fate on its technical feasibility. The BBRSDA’s position could be viewed as an attempt to kill it the old-fashioned way, with overwhelming public opposition.

The organization gets its funding from a 1 percent state tax on Bristol Bay salmon harvests delivered to the docks by fishermen. The tax was approved by a majority vote of the Bay’s state-permitted fishermen in 2006.

The tax provides the organization more than $1 million per year. Some fishermen don’t like paying it, but it is required by law.

“The tax is collected by the state and distributed to BBRSDA….Because the funds are considered part of the state’s general fund prior to distribution,
BBRSDA does not recognize them as revenue until the beginning of the state fiscal year in which they will be distributed to BBRSDA,” the organization says. “The Association received substantially all of its revenue from the state of Alaska. Annual funding by the state of Alaska is subject to
appropriation by the Legislature.”

Commercial fishermen in Alaska are recipients  of these taxes returned to them to market or raise fish in hatcheries. The general fund kickbacks from fishing taxes are part of the reason the state ends up subsidizing the costs of managing and policing the commercial fisheries.

Update: An early version of this story lacked the fact the Pebble Partnership was helping finance the lawsuit.



10 replies »

  1. If we could go back and rethink the Hanford Nuclear Waste facility, given what we now know about it’s potential/probable environmental plague, would we make different decisions? The Pebble plan is to leave the waste products (that are perpetually toxic) behind earthen dams in a seismically active area…for the rest of time. Even if the millions of earthquakes don’t break down the walls, a brief review of geological history shows that we have periodic ice ages. Imagine the effect that would have on the entire west coast. Now it’s not just an Alaskan issue; it’s a world issue. Who are we to make decisions that will affect those yet born? Has greed and arrogance replaced the responsible stewardship of the planet? Evidently…or we wouldn’t be considering this. As was previously mentioned, consider who is to gain and who will ultimately lose.

    • Todd: not to be a naysayer or anything, but if we have another Ice Age there are going to be bigger problems than Pebble tailings.

      • The public does not need to be educated about what constitutes wilderness. John Muir has provided ample examples. We need to find cleaner ways to mine–or simply not mine.. Back in the early two thousands, Juneau-ites tried to save Berners Bay–a spectacular place. And look what happened there.

  2. One of my foremost reasons for choosing the Bay to fish commercially was that back then it appeared all the headwaters were destined to remain environmentally protected.

    I don’t recall where I read that if Pebble gets permitted, it’ll start a fast domino effect with many smaller pending mining permit aps in the area getting granted as well.

    The idea of risking a fabulous renewable resource for a non-renewable one leaves a sour taste.

  3. There is a much smaller pool of money to draw from for building the value of the Bristol Bay sockeye brand than there is for anti-development campaigns. BBRSDA should use its scarce resource for building brand value. BB Sockeye is under appreciated by the market.

  4. I like most Alaskans hold heavy opinions. Peppered with fact . I take issue with certain locals in article statement that there are few job opportunities. Trying to allude to concept a big mine is needed for local survival. That’s a complete farce . I’ve spent considerable time in the area . Anyone with incentive can make a living off local renewable resources. It’s a Mecca for big game guiding caribou and moose galore some of biggest brown bears in the world , trophy sheep , obviously commercial fishing both by drift and setnet , sport fishing is insane and sought after worldwide , flight and general services to support these activities are in action, small scale mining is very possible and ecological less of danger . In short it’s a gold mine of renewables and one of last places on earth this pristine and wild . An American gem . Unreplacable period. What’s the saying in gambling- if you can’t afford to loose don’t play . Well we can’t afford to loose this as it can’t be replaced. That’s not even mentioning the fact humans have lived in the area for thousands of years without “Jobs” a resourceful person can very happily sustain themselves in this area on a subsistence lifestyle with minimal need for cash dollars . To rob that ability from future generations would be a travesty. Alaska is one of most active seismic regions in the world. Large scale Mining has a factual history of ecological distasters . Now if I remember correctly there has been minimal recent seismic activity in that specific area . Someone can look up our seismic maps to confirm. The thing is new fault lines are being found in Alaska . It’s an active zone and our plates are in constant motion . Alaska was once far south in a tropical equator environment. In short our state is moving and earths core is active. The big one is on its way . When ? Where ? Tempered only by fact there will be constant small quakes . Now as to reliability of large conglomerate mining companies honesty ? The thing that’s 100% trustable is they are dishonest. Money drives them. As they say he who has the gold makes the rules – he who makes the rules is powerful- power corrupts. Money blinds . History confirms this . The money this mine makes will mostly be fast tracked to outside interests . In fact Mostly foreign interests . Pebble has a history of being sold to larger and larger mining conglomerates . If it’s allowed to proceed it’s extremely probable it will immediately change hands or foreign partners will materialize ,national interests will step in . They already have close ties through past ownership and investment. America and Alaska will earn next to nothing but mostly foreign and mega rich investors will profit massively. It will become a joke to compare it to the unbalanced commercial fishing permit ratio by out of staters – who by the way are American families. Big time companies do whatever it takes to maximize profits and minimize local costs . Then they leave with little care for who is left . I have had some inside knowledge of these companies actions . Over the past 15 years I was close to An environmental consultant firm hired by northern dynasty and its associates . Extreme water quality tests and stream fish surveys . What they found was the water was impeccably clean and the local streams filled with fish . It was so carefully documented to minutiae that it was obviously easy to pollute and any major action would effect the pristine and wild quality risking fish and environment. Apparently that wasn’t the answer the mining conglomerate wanted so they fired the company and started over with a different company after years and years of studies . I won’t mention names to protect them . They were knowledgeable and professional people. Just So you know I’ve even seen the drilling core samples so I’m not bs ing . That major deceptive action to throw out viable studies should tell any rational person Alaska is dealing with a win at all cost conglomerate of liars .

    • I’m not so sure there are all that many guiding (fishing and hunting) and flying opportunities out there, certainly not year round, same with fishing. Sure there are seasonal opportunities but it’s not like there are hundreds upon hundreds of guide opportunities (fishing and hunting), let alone flying. Nowadays there is an almost mercenary like force that descends upon the region, guides from all over the world show up to harvest the cash from tourists from all over the world, and our fish and game. Our resources are already being farmed out to out of state interests, it is our responsibility as Alaskans to get the most out of our resources. Once upon a time the commercial fishing industry could have supplied enough opportunity for local residents, but for various reason (usually monetary in nature) permits were sold and removed from the local population. Most people opposed to this prospect have never seen this country let alone be able to point to it on a map, that you have means something in my book…it lend credence to what you have to say.

      • You have a point as to getting most out of resources as that’s effectively written into our government. The part you must put in when you calculate that against large scale mining is how long will mine be there ? At best hundreds of years if what’s expected happens , – multiple more mines in other areas – mining sprawl . Mining has a proven history of boom and bust all over the world. Now balance those mining dollars against the renewable resources in the area that will last millions of years at worst several thousand years . Which one wins ? Studies? What will the region do in 100 years when mines play out ? Will the locals still have means to support themselves? What other toxic mining products will be found? Uranium- zinc ? We have other watersheds being polluted by those . Look up red dog . Alaska is relatively pristine but stats say when you factor in red dog and our other mines we have a pollution rate that makes us near top of list for pollution producing states . I think a few years ago we were number one . Obviously that’s not per mile but still it’s a distinction I don’t want for our state . Another very important fact is how can we maximize those pebble profits . Giving them to an international group in 2020 is not smart . In fact it’s incredibly stupid- asinine and any other dirty words you can add . How to maximize profits as you want ? Wait 50 -100-10000 years until our world is desperate for those minerals. They will be worth way more in 10,000 years . Then at that time only allow an Alaskan firm to mine it . Non residents are not allowed to hunt here when game is in short supply. What’s the difference? In 100 to 10,000 years mining safety will improve, odds of pollution will go way down. Only a fool risks something they can’t replace . Now worst or in my opinion best case scenario and minerals become worthless and unwanted in 10000 years ? Well you still had the profits from wild fish ,game ,tourism , clean water . Those are about to become invaluable commodities. It’s win win financely to wait . It’s like a huge huge federal reserve full of gold and in theory cold be used for credit or to back our future credit rating. If our politicians were intelligent and figure out how to leverage it . Plus no bank robbers will break into those raw reserves,it costs very little to house that enormous stock pile . In short mining now would be the most irresponsible short sighted thing our state could allow. Oil is different. There is a high probability it’s value may drop within 1,000 years . Minerals are just getting into value zone .

Leave a Reply